Restored and refined masculinity is the secret to better interpersonal relationships, according to Nicole Law.
The subject of masculinity has gained traction in recent months. Here in Singapore, for instance, it has entered the sphere of public debate in light of rising numbers of sexual assault cases and a collective re-examination of what it means to be a man today.
An insightful answer to the question ‘what are men for?’ was provided by Joseph Evans in his sensitive Adamah article on masculinity entitled “Real men care”. Such a title could seem an unusual affirmation to those who see the ability to feel emotion as a decidedly feminine quality.
As a woman let me throw in my two pennies’ worth on this big question.
As Joseph Evans highlighted the example of the biblical figure of St Joseph, the foster-father of Jesus, in his article, I set about learning a bit more about this character.
As a Catholic myself with devotion to this saint, I was hesitant at first – what was I going to learn that I did not already know? But I thought I’d give it a go and I began by checking out some social media posts to see what they had to say. They described him as the ‘strong, silent type’. So far so good!
But that ‘silent’ bit worried me somewhat. I wondered whether he was not all too similar to many men I had encountered whose idea of a meaningful conversation was one grunt for yes and two grunts for no …
Female friends have often shared with me their angst because of the dearth of good men out there today, citing examples of poor accountability and even the toxic dating culture where commitment is regarded as an archaic oddity, instead of a non-negotiable in relationships.
Much of what women understand of masculinity is based on the examples of men we have encountered – we may have been wounded by some and hence formed negative perceptions of them. This can lead to the error of tarring all men with the same brush because of some past trauma.
Along the way, women may have started to lose hope and begun to accept distorted representations of masculinity – abusive, coercive and manipulative behaviour becomes somehow accepted as the norm because we have lost sight of what true ‘manhood’ looks like.
In Joseph Evans’ article I was inspired by the idea that ‘true manhood requires standing up for the dignity of women, where necessary to defend women from danger, disrespect and injustice, whatever their situation might be’.
This insight is fundamental in the context of the rise of a rape culture across the world, not simply the rising incidence of such damaging manifestations of brutal and criminal male aggression but the acceptance of such behaviour in various forms in wider society and online.
A friend shared with me an incident in which a man whom she knew did nothing when he found out that his friend had raped a mutual female friend in the same friendship group. The story shocked me and highlighted the sense of betrayal women felt in this culture.
The same feeling of angst occurs when a man walking with his female friend in the street does nothing when she is harassed or catcalled by men passing by. This absence of action is as toxic as the actual abusive call itself – true manhood means protecting the dignity of women in such situations.
But back to St Joseph. We get that he was strong, but didn’t I also mention he was largely silent? Indeed he never speaks in any of the gospels, not a single word.
To the female mind, the lack of words might seem like a weakness instead of a strength, especially when most women I know complain that men often take light years to respond to our messages or engage in meaningful communication.
That was my initial reaction too, until I reflected a little deeper and realised that Joseph’s silence does not mean inaction, but rather calm and considered action, without the need to draw attention to what he was doing.
In the biblical narratives Joseph does not ignore Mary’s concerns or gloss over them with a dismissive tone. He listens, like a good man (a good human being actually) would.
At this point, I realised that being a good listener is a quality in a man which is very undervalued in our era. Today’s dating culture revolves around the exciting overlaps we find between ourselves, the chemistry many people promise. Yet how rarely do we stop to listen to the ones we love with interest in their concerns.
To be a ‘Joseph’ is to inhabit the perspective of the people in one’s life and to take care not to use words as a weapon but rather as a soothing balm.
This realisation highlighted for me the recent uptick in cases of domestic abuse. Beyond the obvious physical signs of assault, a more damaging strain involves the manipulation of women by men through harsh language, demeaning their achievements, sexist comments and a kind of psychological terrorism which results in an erosion of the woman’s self-worth.
I have witnessed couples engage in quarrels in public spaces to the point where the man hurled words of abuse at his partner. Such incidents left a deep impact on me (as a spectator) as I am clearly aware of the impact of words on one’s self-esteem and I felt pained on the woman’s behalf.
On such occasions I am reminded of the danger of using words to harm rather than to heal. Joseph stands out as a reminder to men of the inherent value of discretion – an oft-overlooked quality in our search for the perfect man.
So, apart from the big beard and the long robe, St Joseph was emerging as the strong, silent type, the prototype man of my dreams! But what of that other title often used in pious literature about him – protector?
As a modern emancipated woman who prides herself on being independent, I confess I felt uneasy about the concept of the male as protector. Yet Joseph Evans’ reflection on the matter spoke directly to me. “Modern woman may feel she doesn’t want protecting,” he wrote, “but can try to interpret protective actions by men as part of male love language, accepting such gestures as a form of tender loving care even when clumsily expressed.” This shifted my perspective from blatant refusal of male care to an opening of my heart to allow myself to be loved.
Maybe we women sometimes fail to accurately interpret the actions of the men in our lives.
Remember what I said about being silent? Women may interpret male silence as being cold, unfeeling and having little concern for their needs. Yet perhaps, there is something more important than words alone and we need to look again at the – often overlooked – figure of the man of action!
Understood in this way,those small gestures a woman observes, though clumsy and sometimes annoying and exaggerated, like walking on the outside of the pavement,or insisting on seeing a woman to the door of her apartment after dinner, can be read as or reflections of the ‘Joseph-model’ of maleness, a man protecting the woman because he cares about her.
In the Bible Joseph knows when to take necessary action to ensure the safety and wellbeing of Mary, yet he gives her space to act and does not try to control her. He does not, as modern psychologists like to say, exhibit qualities of a codependent relationship.
I am an avid reader of psychology texts, in a bid to better understand both the female and male psyche, and one of my current interests is to untangle the difference between codependency and interdependence.
Many modern relationships exhibit qualities of codependence in which one partner possesses an inappropriate need for control and in turn wishes to wield control over the actions of the other. This creates an unhealthy dynamic in which the actions of one person are dependent on those of the other.
Interdependence, on the other hand, is borne of trust in the other partner. Like his biblical namesake, the thoroughly modern Joseph (or John or Will or Leo) trusts the modern Mary (or Anna or Rebecca or Lia) and gives her space to make her own decisions, independent of him. He does not assert his dominance in a form of toxic masculinity, he does not desire to possess or control.
As Karol Wojtyla (later to be Pope John Paul II) put it beautifully in his study Love and Responsibility (another book worth a read if you are interested in relationships) – “A person’s rightful due is to be treated as an object of love, not as an object for use.”
Objects can be possessed, but people are to be loved!
I know (honestly I do!) it may seem a bit ‘out there’ to seek couple counselling in the relationship of a man and woman who lived in a sexless marriage 2000 years ago, with the added challenge of having a child to bring up who claimed to be the Messiah. But trust me, there is much that can be learned from the ‘Nazareth model’!
Take this, for example … Mary does not leave Joseph completely out of the picture but allows herself to be aided, to be loved, when facing problematic issues. It speaks to the delicate balance between the feminine and masculine (excuse the apparent stereotyping – clearly each relationship is different), with one partner adopting a disposition of receptiveness to the love of the other. Love is as much knowing how to receive it as how to show it.
Joseph saw Mary as an equal, a woman who possessed free will and the ability to act independently. They exemplified the interdependent relationship modern society strives for and sometimes fails to achieve. Their example challenges the rest of us to not be afraid to see our partners as equals, instead of competitors.
But what about sex? What does the Joseph model have to say to us about that? Modern society is drowning in sex and the sexualisation of our culture seems complete. That is not to say that an open approach to sexual issues is wrong. The Victorian’s near allergy to the issue led to many hidden tragedies and appalling hypocrisy.
Yet every generation has the power to engage in its own way with the prevailing culture, to be swept along by it or challenge it where necessary in order to make it more fully human. We can give in to the allure of free and easy sexual relationships and throw self-control out the window. As women, we can give in (another way of saying we can be coerced?) to the demands of our partners to engage in certain acts even if we feel uncomfortable with them for fear of rocking the proverbial boat, or, shock horror, ending a relationship. Yet, is that what we are made for? Are we really so powerless? I am of the opinion that we can and must choose to exit such toxic relationships, as difficult as this might be.
True masculinity is not about imposing desires or projecting male fantasies onto women but rather it is exercised in self-control,
in searching out agreed spaces and limits and setting aside ever more extreme and sometimes dangerous sexual fantasies out of respect and love for one’s partner.
The Joseph model reminds me there is so much value and freedom to be had from choosing consciously to love the person in front of me and not just the body he or she inhabits. This might involve voluntary abstinence from sexual activity when it is clear the other does not want it. Self-control is the pathway to an integrated sense of self and an acknowledgement that we are not divorced from our bodies, but that we exist as a whole.
Love and Responsibility puts it this way: “Love consists of a commitment which limits one’s freedom – it is a giving of the self, and to give oneself means just that: to limit one’s freedom on behalf of another.” Self-control is the pathway to the true love we write about, we sing about and we dream about. Joseph shows us that it is possible and that it is something we should desire.
So back to my original question. What are men for? Is true masculinity well and truly dead? I used to think so. But now I see a steady restoration in my confidence in the men around me and my sense of self as a woman. To restore means to build slowly from strong foundations, and that’s what it takes to rebuild masculinity.
We start from empathy and maturity, a responsibility for others and, yes, the recognition that feminine and masculine qualities intersect to form the human ideal. Joseph provides men (and women!) with an excellent role model to look up to. Women can see in St Joseph the strong silent type who is a model for the restoration of masculinity and a champion of respect for women alongside it.
The way back into love, à la the romantic comedy Love Actually, is encapsulated in St John Paul II’s quote in Love and Responsibility: “Love is never something ready made, something merely ‘given’ to man and woman, it is always at the same time a ‘task’ which they are set. Love should be seen as something which in a sense never ‘is’ but is always only ‘becoming’, and what it becomes depends upon the contribution of both persons and the depth of their commitment.”
That’s a challenge of a lifetime, but also a recipe for happiness. Shouldn’t we give it a try?
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